Friends, fans and fellow competitors were concerned when Joanna Zeiger collapsed midway through the run during Sunday’s Boulder 5430 long course triathlon and was taken from the course by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Zeiger, as she had for many recent races, looked strong until she hit the run, and then pulled out with some mysterious malady.
Zeiger was really up for the challenge of defending her Boulder 5430 long course crown against two-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and two-time defending Xterra World Champion Julie Dibens. After all, the 2000 Olympic fourth place finisher, Chicago winner and multiple Ironman and half Ironman champion had fought a four year battle with a seemingly insoluble, potentially career-crippling back and leg issues. Yet through persistence, intelligence and courage, she emerged healthy – and with the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Title.
On Monday, Zeiger was up and explained that her latest physical woe was due to recurring dizziness which strikes several hours into the stress of long course competition. “I think people most people can’t understand unless they have experienced extreme dizziness and they cannot know how scary it is,” said Zeiger. “What I experience is not like the world is spinning. The dizziness I experience is like falling down. It’s so frustrating because I start out feeling great and optimistic and then when it hits, by the end of the bike or the beginning of the run, hits me hard, nasty and so far it’s insurmountable.”
Zeiger said the condition first struck after her Ironman 70.3 World Championship triumph at Clearwater in November and has persisted ever since. “Last year I had a tremendous bike and run at Clearwater, but a few weeks later at Ironman Arizona my season came to a screeching halt,” said Zeiger, who also sports a PhD in genetic epidemiology. “At Arizona, I had a great bike and ran a great 10k and then got dizzy, and ended up vomiting and having to drop out.”
Zeiger said she has had a much milder form of this syndrome throughout her career. “It is a thing I always had, but it is much worse now,” she said. “Before, I managed to get through it with different strategies. I had some problems with dizziness at Vineman 70.3 last year but I adapted and got through it.”
After Arizona, Zeiger that that she decided not to do the Ironman distance any more be because it was too taxing. This year, Zeiger went to Ironman 70.3 New Orleans and started well. “Unfortunately, I encountered extreme dizziness and tunnel vision there, which I attributed to the fact that it was a hot day. Before, I had been getting it on the last half of the Ironman bike. But at New Orleans, it started to happen in the half Ironman.”
At that time, Zeiger said she was examined by a heart specialist who ruled out cardiac problems. “To avoid his issue, which perplexed doctors who could not pinpoint a cause, I set out certain specific rules,” said Zeiger. “I would race under a certain heart rate, take more fluids and calories on the bike.” Still, she was stopped again at Vineman 70.3 and had to drop out on the run.
The morning of Boulder 5430 long course, Zeiger said “I was feeling great and optimistic,” she said. “I thought limiting my heart rate would solve the problem. Anyway, I was a little off the back from Julie and Chrissie on the bike. Could I have stayed with them if I hadn’t been so conservative? I don’t know. But it happened again.”
Zeiger, who finally got to the bottom of frustratingly complex back and leg problems, says she does not enjoy having another physical mystery to solve. “This is really frustrating,” she said. “I love the sport and I love racing so much hate the fact that now I can’t do it.”
Zeiger says she is trying to track down specialists who can pinpoint her problem, but so far all the doctors are stumped. “I am working with Chris Madden in Longmont [Colorado] and he dialed into the best people who are doing the best work on this issue. Yes I have had a history of overcoming difficult things. Hopefully, this will be another thing I will overcome.”